Guido doesn't want non-portable assembly in Python and it's understandable

(I wrote a long comment in the Hacker News discussion of Guido's slides about his plans for async io and asymmetric coroutines in Python 3.4, but I thought it was good enough to deserve a blog post)

From a certain perspective [Guido's desire to keep non-portable stack slicing assembly out of Python] is a rational decision. Because the CPython API relies so heavily on the C stack, either some platform-specific assembly is required to slice up the C stack to implement green threads, or the entire CPython API would have to be redesigned to not keep the Python stack state on the C stack.

Way back in the day the proposal for merging Stackless into mainline Python involved removing Python's stack state from the C stack. However there are complications with calling from C extensions back into Python that ultimately killed this approach.

After this Stackless evolved to be a much less modified fork of the Python codebase with a bit of platform specific assembly that performed "stack slicing". Basically when a coro starts, the contents of the stack pointer register are recorded, and when a coro wishes to switch, the slice of the stack from the recorded stack pointer value to the current stack pointer value is copied off onto the heap. The stack pointer is then adjusted back down to the saved value and another task can run in that same stack space, or a stack slice that was stored on the heap previously can be copied back onto the stack and the stack pointer adjusted so that the task resumes where it left off.

Then around 2005 the Stackless stack slicing assembly was ported into a CPython extension as part of py.lib. (By Armin Rigo. A million thanks from me for this.) This was known as greenlet. Unfortunately all the original codespeak.net py.lib pages are 404 now, but here's a blog post from around that time that talks about it.

Finally the relevant parts of greenlet were extracted from py.lib into a standalone greenlet module, and eventlet, gevent, et cetera grew up around this packaging of the Stackless stack slicing code.

So you see, using the Stackless strategy in mainline python would have either required breaking a bunch of existing C extensions and placing limitations on how C extensions could call back into Python, or custom low level stack slicing assembly that has to be maintained for each processor architecture. CPython does not contain any assembly, only portable C, so using greenlet in core would mean that CPython itself would become less portable.

Generators, on the other hand, get around the issue of CPython's dependence on the C stack by unwinding both the C and Python stack on yield. The C and Python stack state is lost, but a program counter state is kept so that the next time the generator is called, execution resumes in the middle of the function instead of the beginning.

There are problems with this approach; the previous stack state is lost, so stack traces have less information in them; the entire call stack must be unwound back up to the main loop instead of a deeply nested call being able to switch without the callers being aware that the switch is happening; and special syntax (yield or yield from) must be explicitly used to call out a switch.

But at least generators don't require breaking changes to the CPython API or non-portable stack slicing assembly. So maybe now you can see why Guido prefers it.

Myself, I decided that the advantages of transparent stack switching and interoperability outweighed the disadvantages of relying on non-portable stack slicing assembly. However Guido just sees things in a different light, and I understand his perspective.


Your giant proprietary (or at least silo) codebase is a huge liability

There has been a lot of news this week about vulnerabilities in very low-level platform code being used in production by many many people. First there was a ruby exploit, and now today I see that there is a new java zero day.

The truth is, these kinds of exploits are absolutely everywhere. When off-the-shelf libraries are assembled together to make a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, strange interactions are possible that the original integrators never conceived of.

In the case of the ruby exploit, from what I read it seems something like: Part of the web decoding machinery that could decode URL encoded parameters was extended to be able to decode XML. The XML decoding machinery was then extended to be able to decode YAML.

YAML has a syntax for serializing arbitrary Ruby objects, and when that YAML file is deserialized a new instance of that object is created. With careful crafting of the input file, a large variety of arbitrary code execution is possible.

This is also the reason it is not a good idea to use pickle as a network serialization format in Python. You might think, "oh, I'll use marshal. Marshal doesn't support arbitrary class serialization." But take a look at the list of object types marshal does support:

None, integers, long integers, floating point numbers, strings, Unicode objects, tuples, lists, sets, dictionaries, and code objects

Code objects. I rest my case. Of course, you would have to be calling the return results from the marshal module in order for a code object constructed by an attacker to run on your server, but some hacker somewhere is probably going to figure out some crazy way.

Which brings me to my main point: I've observed over the years that for some reason business type people and even some programmers seem to think that a large proprietary codebase that nobody else is allowed to look at is an asset. It's not; it's a liability!

You don't understand what's in your code. You don't understand what's in the code of the large number of libraries that you use every day. Codebases are written over weeks, months, years, by different people, in different frames of mind.

There are solutions to this code complexity problem. We can break large complex code bases into small parts that are very explicit and careful about validating their input. We can completely isolate these parts from each other so that they can't accidentally (or maliciously) break something.

Libraries could strive for simplicity and explicitness rather than kitchen-sink-itis. If a surgeon wants to do surgery, they are going to choose a light, sharp, well-balanced scalpel, not an old Swiss Army knife.

Code that only a few people have to look at doesn't have to be clear. Only those few people have to bear the mental burden of holding that nasty code in their head. Code that a lot of people need to look at has a higher probability of being clear. This is one advantage of open source; obviously, it's not enough.

My suggestion for reducing the complexity in interactions like these is to create simpler, more well-defined libraries and isolate these libraries from each other in different processes.

Processes evolved in the 70s to isolate users from each other but now it is 2013 and we could start isolating more and more libraries from each other. For languages that don't use reference counting, fork with copy on write may be good enough to allow us to actually use many many UNIX processes for a single application without consuming too many resources.